Stop exploiting trainees as cheap labor: lawyers

It is high time the government faced facts and scrapped its industrial training and internship program because it is used to exploit foreign trainees as a cheap source of labor, a lawyer group said Thursday, claiming the purpose of the system and its reality are worlds apart.

The trainee system is touted as making an international contribution by transferring Japan’s industrial expertise to people from developing countries. But in reality, foreign trainees are underpaid and overworked without being given a chance to learn any skills, according to Lawyers’ Network for Trainees.

“A drastic review of the program is necessary. . . . The system is functioning to receive cheap unskilled laborers and exploit them,” lawyer Lila Abiko, the group’s secretary general, said in Tokyo at The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

Pointing at the death of a Chinese trainee in Ibaraki Prefecture in 2008 that was recognized as “karoshi” (death from overwork) by a labor office in the prefecture early this month, Abiko said the case is only “the tip of the iceberg.”

Twenty-seven foreign nationals, most of them in their 20s and 30s, who came to Japan under the training program died in fiscal 2009, marking the second-highest tally on record after the 35 deaths seen the year before. An earlier report on the 2009 fatalities said nine died of brain or heart disease, four died while working, three committed suicide, three died in bicycle accidents and the rest died of unknown causes.

The training and internship programs, established in 1993 by the government, allow foreigners to work as technical interns at companies for up to two years after they undergo a year of training.

“I lost all heart,” said Li Quing Zhi, a 34-year-old Chinese, who also attended the news conference.

Zhi, who came to Japan under the program in 2007, said he worked from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day at a fixture-making company in Saitama Prefecture with only 21 days off a year. He was paid only part of his overtime wages for the first year, just ¥400 per hour. After he complained, Zhi’s work was ended last March.

“If the Japanese industry needs labor from foreign countries, Japanese citizens have to discuss how to accept them as labor with a full guarantee of labor rights. In this system, they are not guaranteed labor rights,” Abiko said.